M.I.A. – Matangi

by Will Cafferky

The release of Matangi was, much like M.I.A.’s earlier life, far from straightforward. What Matangi manages, that some of her previous albums haven’t, is to embody all of the aspects that make M.I.A. such a unique and successful artist. It is perhaps for this reason that she pushed so hard for its release, even threatening to leak the album online last year after becoming frustrated with her record label’s refusal of its first draft. Her pursuit has undoubtedly paid off as Matangi delivers mazy cultural RnB with the unapologetic lyricism that has won M.I.A. somewhat of a cult following.

Not known for pulling punches, M.I.A. opens the album with Karmageddon, stating “systems shouldn’t operate by sticking me in a cage”. It’s indicative of the tone she sets throughout the album. Whilst the music industry is by no means short of anti-systemic rhetoric, few can deliver such criticism in the manner M.I.A. can, as she uses her vast cultural experience to her advantage.

The album’s eponymous track employs another dizzying tribal drum beat with M.I.A.’s almost monotonous vocals layered over the top. As with many of her songs, she experiments with a variety of Asian beats. The instrumental towards the conclusion of Matangi, whilst in stark contrast to her harsh RnB lyrics, manages to seem right at home. Perhaps it’s because - as those familiar with M.I.A.’s background will acknowledge - her strength comes from the breadth of genre’s upon which she has built her truly distinctive sound.

Whilst much of her music may contain elements of her Sri Lankan ancestry, there is also plenty of evidence of her South London education. atTENTion is perhaps the albums most conventional ‘dance’ track, with its repetitive samples and messy drum beat. Nonetheless it doesn’t feel like a departure from the rest of the album’s material, but instead another glimpse into her distinct upbringing.

Bad Girls is in many ways the quintessential M.I.A. track. It spawned a marvellously satirical music video that featured rebellious burka-clad female drag racers. It also arguably boasts the best hook of any track on the album: a mazy Arabian melody that compliments the lyrics and beat beautifully. This is immediately followed by the brilliant Boom Skit interlude, with an almost nursery rhyme-esque tune only bettered by the damning nature of the accompanying lyrics. The contrast between the innocent backing music, and the scathing vocals of M.I.A. perhaps make this the most enjoyable of any of the album’s tracks.

If there’s any criticism I can find of this album, it’s that there’s little respite. The album is not completely faultless, whilst undoubtedly containing some absolute gems; Only 1 U and Lights seem to fall short of the impeccably high bar set by the other tracks. At risk of sounding like a musical lightweight, I can’t help but feel that listening to this album from start to finish can be a somewhat intense experience, with the only real break from the mazy drum beats and harsh vocals coming at the midway point in Exodus. Nonetheless, you cannot fault M.I.A. for the relentless pursuit of her own unique sound, of which Matangi provides the most refined example yet.